Tag Archives: Petroglyphs

Herman Wirth and the Origins of Writing

Did our early human ancestors develop a  written “code” some 30,000 years ago or more, inscribing and painting cave walls with its enigmatic symbols?  This is the question posed by new research from Genevieve von Petzinger,  a recently graduated master’s student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and the subject of a fascinating new article in New Scientist.  What no one has mentioned so far, however,  is that the  idea of such an ancient script dates back to the nineteenth century and has a dark link to Nazi Germany.

First,  however,  let me summarize my understanding of von Petzinger’s very cool new research.  Struck by the profusion of little circles,  triangles,  lines and other marks on rock-art-covered cave walls dating to Paleolithic times,  von Petzinger created a massive database of all such recorded marks at 146 sites in France.  (No one else had apparently been willing to undertake this seemingly thankless task, so full marks to von Petzinger.)  The sites  ranged in age from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In analyzing this new database with her thesis advisor April Nowell,  von Petzinger noticed that cave artists had repeated 26 different signs–including circles and triangles–over and over again. The artists had also used a kind of visual shorthand–inscribing just mammoth tusks instead of a whole mammoth, for example–which is common in pictographic languages.   Moreover,  in some caves,  von Petzinger discovered pairs of signs,  a type of grouping that characterizes early pictorial language.

This all sounds exceedingly interesting,  though I am waiting to see the paper that the pair has just submitted to Antiquity. But I feel obliged to point out that the idea of a very early system of written symbols was strongly championed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s by Herman Wirth,  one of the most controversial prehistorians in Europe and the first president of the Nazi research institute founded by SS head Heinrich Himmler.   (This institute was the subject of my last book,  The Master Plan:  Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.  In it,  I wrote two full chapters on Wirth and his research. )

Wirth,  who had a Ph.D in philology,  was a man of great personal charm and many bizarre ideas.  He became convinced that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic race had evolved in the Arctic,  where it developed a sophisticated civilization complete with the world’s first writing system.  Furthermore, he proposed that Plato’s description of Atlantis and its demise was in fact an accurate account of the catastrophe that befell the Nordic civilization on an Arctic  island.

According to Wirth,  the Nordic refugees from this  disaster escaped to northern Europe,  bringing with them their ancient writing system,  an invention that later diffused to cultures around the world.   So Wirth spent years poring over ancient European rock art, searching for evidence of this system and recording examples of circles,  disks and wheels that he believed were ancient Nordic ideograms symbolizing the sun,  the annual cycle of life,  and so on.

I found Wirth’s ideas about an ancient master race and an Arctic Atlantis preposterous.  Indeed,  they would have been laughable  had it not been for the fact that Himmler,  the architect of the Final Solution,  used Wirth’s published works  to lend credence to the official Nazi line on the Aryan master race,  and that Wirth, who died in 1981,  still has many avid followers in Germany and Austria today. Indeed,  I  interviewed one of his ardent supporters.

I think that von Petzinger’s new research on Paleolithic symbols sounds immensely intriguing.  It certainly fits with our growing awareness of the abilities of our human ancestors.  Moreover,  I  want to state clearly that the Canadian researcher did not for a moment come under the influence of Herman Wirth and his ideas.  Indeed, she proposes that the ancient sign language may have originated in Africa and arrived in Europe with modern humans–a proposal that would have horrified Wirth.

Nevertheless,  I think it’s  important to point out the troubled history of the idea of an ancient European script recorded in rock art.    We cannot afford to forget in any way the Nazi past.

Today’s photo shows a plaster cast that Wirth made in the late 1930s of Bronze-Age rock art in Sweden.  I photographed this cast in 2002 as it hung in a museum in a small Austrian town, Spital am Pyhrn.  At the time,  Wirth’s casts were clandestine Nazi memorials.

Museum Curios or Objects of Spiritual Healing?

Two days ago,  I suggested that the Vancouver Museum seriously consider repatriating a petroglyph-covered boulder in its collections to the tribal group in whose territory it was found.  The art on the boulder appears to be deteriorating badly in the museum courtyard as moss and water erode the stone,  obliterating figures that were clear as a bell in the 1930s.  I argued that repatriation would be a good solution to this problem,  for I believe that tribal group in question would have a much greater interest in taking care of the art.

But there’s also a moral argument to be made here.  I don’t think that national, provincial or city museums are the right places for objects of great spiritual importance to aboriginal peoples,  objects that still have a tremendous meaning today. These items, in my opinion,  really need to go back to the tribal group from which they came.   Imagine the outcry,  for example,  if an Egyptian museum held part of the manger of Christ in its collections and would not return it to the Vatican on request?

My views on this matter were strongly shaped by an experience I had while I was working for what is now the Royal Museum of Alberta back in the 1970s.  At the time, the museum held a collection of sacred medicine bundles once owned by healers and spiritual leaders in the Blackfoot Confederacy,  the Niitsitapi.

The museum bought the bundles back in a time when residential schools and other modern ills had badly eroded the traditional culture of the Niitsitapi.   But in the 1970s,  a few people in these tribes were actively reviving traditional spiritual practices.  They wanted their bundles back, because these sacred objects were absolutely essential to age-old spiritual practices.  The museum, however,  stubbornly refused to part with them.

Finally,  however,  four members of the Kainai Nation (part of the Niitsitapi) arrived at the museum one spring day and asked if they could take the Longtime Medicine Pipe Bundle  outdoors for prayer,  as was tradition.  As a young research assistant,  I watched them carry the bundle out past the security cameras and guards.  Outside, they walked in a procession around the museum,  with the museum director and a few other  staff members following.

As they passed the parking lot,   the  Kainai delegation broke into a run toward a waiting pickup truck.  They swiftly clambered in with the bundle  and drove away.  As I later learned,  one member of the delegation had dreamt a few weeks earlier that he could spirit away the bundle from the museum:  today the Kainai talk about how this man cast a charm over the curators.

Many of the Kainai have now returned to their traditional spiritual practices,  and I have heard that the bundle is a very cherished part of those practices.    Clearly, the museum should  have restored the bundle to the Kainai when they asked for it.

I have often heard aboriginal people talk about the sacredness of the rock art.  Isn’t it time that  museums think about giving it back to the people who rightfully own it?

P.S. In You interested in healing and ayahuasca retreats at www.spiritplantjourneys.com.

Should We Be Repatriating Rock Art?

My cup of  Starbucks Breakfast Blend wasn’t the only thing steaming this morning as I read today’s post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  It seems that the folks at the Vancouver Museum,  whose job it is to carefully and lovingly preserve its collections for future generations,  are allowing a rare treasure from British Columbia’s Fraser River to crumble and flake into oblivion.  The treasure in question is a massive 5-6 ton boulder once blanketed with petroglyphs. According to the museum,  the art-inscribed boulder once lay in the bed of the Fraser River,  and may have marked an ancient salmon harvesting site.

The petroglyphs are in a dire, near-death state.  In sharp contrast to their striking appearance in a 1930s photograph,  you can barely make them out now.   Partially covered with destructive moss,  the animal figures and other inscriptions are literally disappearing before our eyes–vanishing,  one might add,  as surely as the once bountiful runs of  Fraser River salmon are.  I can’t believe that a museum is allowing this to happen.

But it’s all part and parcel of a much, much larger problem.  Most people,  I’m sorry to say, just don’t value or respect,  much less understand,  ancient rock art. They feel no compunction about prying loose a painted or inscribed boulder from the spot where it was created hundreds or even thousands of years earlier and hauling it off to a museum,  archaeological park or even a private garden.  They think rock art is simply about the art itself–the often mysterious figures painted or inscribed on stone.

But rock art is all about place.    It was created in a specific spot that had great meaning to the ancient artist–a spot, for example,  that looked out on a sacred mountain,  a place where fish were abundant or easy to catch,  or a trail head for a mountain pass or trade route.   For me, there  is nothing more wonderful and exhilarating than coming across a panel of  rock art while I am out hiking with friends.  I love,  of course, to study the inscriptions and photograph them,  and think about what they might mean. But even more than that,  I like to reflect and puzzle over the place itself.   Why did the artists choose that mountain cliff  or this boulder on the beach?  Why there? What made it an important place? What was the artist honoring?

By contrast,  nothing makes me sadder than to see a slab of rock art sitting in a museum foyer or archaeological park.  It looks like an orphan to me,  cut off and isolated from everything that once gave it meaning.  It honors no place any longer,  its meaning has been lost,  its beauty and wonder sadly diminished.

I wonder if it isn’t time to start repatriating rock art in museum collections.  Giving it back to First Nations who may still have stories about where it once stood or belonged. Certainly the First Nations would value it more and take better care of it than that Fraser River boulder at the Vancouver Museum.

Today’s photo shows Buffalo Eddy 2 Petroglyphs at Nez Perce National Historic Park.  Photo courtesy of Nez Perce National Historic Park.